This week, I read two good perspectives on empathy and policing by retired Chief David Couper and current D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier. Both rightly argued that empathy is something we are often lacking in modern policing—the ability to see things from another’s point of view. Chief Lanier points directly to policies of measuring performance by numbers as the reason for the empathy gap. From a street cop’s perspective, I couldn’t agree more.
When we all started going down the Compstat road, and police administrators started openly advocating treating our profession like a business counting widgets, things slowly began to unravel. Don’t get me wrong, Compstat has its place in identifying crime locations and determining where to put cops to fight that crime, but measuring those cops’ worth based on numbers is a path that soon puts the cops at odds with the entire community. The numbers-only system removes objectivity and most discretion, the two key ingredients in policing with compassion.
A friend of mine worked in a housing project known for notoriously high crime. After a series of shootings and other crimes, he was told to step up patrols in the area. The officer, knowing his zone, took the message to mean, stop the violent crime. He identified the key players, made a few good cases and removed the perpetrators from the neighborhood. At the end of the month, there were no shootings on his watch and crime was half what it had been! He should have gotten a citation for outstanding work, right? No. He was chastised for his lack of tickets and drop in arrests. (He had focused on the main criminals, and ignored minor crime). By policing with more discretion, he garnered greater trust and was able to get valuable information about crime from citizens. But, on the books, he looked like a slacker. Crazy, huh? The truth often is.
Another friend of mine was confronted with a dilemma on a traffic stop years ago. The driver of the car had a terrible driving record and his license was suspended so many times that he was considered a Habitual Traffic Offender, a felony at the time in FL. In this instance, the easiest—and many would say right—thing to do was for her to simply arrest the man and tow his car. But. There was an older woman in the passenger seat. The man bowed his head, telling the officer that his mother’s legs hurt so bad due to a medical condition that he risked going to pick her up to spare her the pain of walking home. My friend, after confirming the man had no other criminal background or warrants beyond the traffic fines, made a decision. She asked the woman if she had a valid license. She did. The officer then looked at the man and said, “I would do anything for my mom. I’m supposed to arrest you, but I’m not. Let your mother drive from here. Take care of your license. If I see you driving in another setting, I will arrest you. Fair?” The man was so grateful, he started to cry.
So, what’s the moral of the story? Technically, should my friend have taken the guy in? Yes. Did it really hurt anything for my friend to let him go? No. Do that guy and his mom now have a different perspective on the police? I’d say yes. In contrast, the officer with no compassion, simply “cuffs and stuffs”, indifferent to a personal story. When citizens become numbers, they cease to be people. Compassion is eliminated. Then, it’s a short jump to mistreatment or worse. For me, empathy and compassion are the two greatest traits of a good cop. In policing, we are too often told that those words equal weakness. That is fundamentally wrong. In fact, police are at their very best when they temper enforcement with compassion. Police leadership has to be bold enough to value empathy in the form of unconventional problem solving that cannot normally be measured like a pile of beans. It will take a little more work, but a community that sees its police as compassionate and just will support its police in times of crisis. Officers on the street are safer when community support is high.